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Net Neutrality Explained

The past few weeks on social media have been marked by high-voltage and frenzied debates on net neutrality. The dispute it seems, is not so much over whether net neutrality is needed (I have yet to come across anyone who opposes it) but over whether the idea of zero rating is in compliance with the principle of net neutrality. A look into what these terms actually mean -

1. So what even is net neutrality?
“Net neutrality’ is a principle that demands that telecom companies do not favour any website or application in overt or covert ways, including giving fast or free access to select sites.


2. What is zero rating?
“Zero Rating" is the practice of offering some apps and services free of data charges for the customer, through partnerships with network operators and Internet services. Eg- Airtel Zero and Internet.org

Internet.org is a Facebook-driven global partnership launched in 2013 with the intention of making internet access to the entire world. It will provide free access to basic web services and apps like Facebook, Bing and Wikipedia.

Even Airtel Zero woks on the same principle - it promises users free access to the websites or applications of companies that have commercial arrangements with it. What will effectively happen is that the data charges we pay Airtel to access a website (eg-Facebook) from now on will be paid by Facebook to Airtel. 


3. So doesn’t zero rating compromise the principle of net neutrality?
Yes, so it seems. It has been called a form of ‘positive discrimination.’ Pro neutrality activists believe that the idea of zero rating eats at the essence of the internet. They claim that what is being projected as a means to promote universal connectivity is actually an attempt to monopolize the internet as it would lure/incentivize millions of users to limit their web experience to some applications. 

For example, Internet.org in India allows free access to Microsoft Bing. People using Google will have to pay for data charges. Is that neutral?


4. What are the other arguments? 
There is a fear that if all telecom companies adopt such schemes, a cartel would be formed that would promote a mediocre internet, i.e. we may have Vodafone Zero, Aircel Zero, Idea Zero, etc in addition to Airtel Zero and Internet.Org, each of which promises free access to only a select few sites. But even if we have free access to 10,000 sites, they do not make up for the millions of sites which constitute the internet.


5. So how does Mr. Zuckerberg argue that?
“If you can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.”


6. He seems to be having a point. Wouldn't universal connectivity be a boon?
Yes, but you see, the counter-argument run by pro net neutrality activist is also true – what Internet.org and Airtel Zero promise is not the internet but a selected section of it. More than ensuring universal connectivity, Internet.org is focused on widening Facebook’s reach. This arrangement is tilted towards favouring the status quo; it impeded innovation and start-ups. And companies like Facebook would greatly benefit from maintaining status quo.


7. How?
Suppose I come up with a social networking app, which offers services much better than those of Facebook. I still will have a limited user-base; simply because accessing Facebook would be free for users while they would be charged for accessing my app. 

Many thus, fear that such initiatives will skew the level-playing field to the disadvantage of start-ups and will favour the established giants in the market. To think about it, this section has a point. After all, how many of us even buy paid apps from Google Play? How many of us would prefer to use stuff which we have to pay for when we can easily use an inexpensive substitute?

In fact, the problem with zero rating is not about what is offered but more about what’s not offered – companies which do not have any commercial arrangements with Internet.org or Airtel Zero, would be in serious trouble.

Besides, activists fear that telecom companies may block other websites or reduce the speed of traffic to them (though both Airtel’s CEO and Zuckerberg have promised that they will not do so).


8. Ok. So how can I help the cause of net neutrality in India?
TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) has released a consultation paper to elicit views from the people on this subject. It has 20 questions and is incredibly complex. Fortunately for us, someone has already framed answers to them. Go to http://www.savetheinternet.in/ and forward the answers to TRAI before the 24th of April, 2015 and join the 8 lakh netizens who have taken part in this movement.

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